What Does Internet Explorer 7 Mean For Apple?
First a bit of background: Microsoft repeatedly and vehemently maintained that there would be no new version of IE until Longhorn shipped. Most folks took this to mean that there would be no new independent version of IE at all. That is to say that if you wanted the latest version of IE you were going to have to go ahead and pony up the cash for Longhorn. It made a twisted sort of sense, after all Microsoft had been giving away IE for so long there was no way they could start charging for it directly and, by coupling it with Longhorn only, users would have that much more incentive to jettison XP the day Longhorn shipped. Think of it as the big payoff for all those years spent beating Netscape into the ground.
In a mildly shocking (think 9 volt battery on the tongue) shift Microsoft has decided to release IE 7 before and (obviously) independently of Longhorn. One is left to wonder why. Some might argue that it was an increasing amount of consumer complaints. Others might opine that IE 6 has become somewhat hopelessly outdated and lacks many features of more modern browsers. The cynical and jaded will argue that Firefox’s recent success prompted Microsoft to do something before a small problem could grow into a big problem.
Here the analytical thinker might point out that since Microsoft isn’t going to charge anything for the browser then there is really no reason to think that Firefox’s popularity is even an issue. That argument might have some merit if Microsoft did not obviously want to control the browser market. If we cast our minds back to the earliest incarnations of Explorer we are hard pressed to think of obvious reasons to release a web browser at all. Netscape controlled the market and charged thirty dollars (if memory serves) for Netscape Gold. Microsoft came along and gave a better browser away for free. Rather than go into various abstractions of why Microsoft would give something away for free when others were trying to make a buck it is sufficient to note that they did. And that illustrates the fact that, for whatever reason, Microsoft wants to rule the browser arena.
So how does any of this apply to the Mac platform? If Firefox is indeed the reason for Microsoft’s policy shift then the Mac may be in for a very bumpy ride. Currently the Mac platform appears to be going through something of a renaissance. Last quarter saw small gains in market share and this quarter, analysts think, will see larger gains. The increase has been attributed to any number of factors but the reason doesn’t really matter in the long run, if Apple picks up enough steam they might find themselves the object of Microsoft’s wrath.
Being targeted by Microsoft is a very bad thing according to conventional wisdom. One only has to look back through the years to see what happens when Microsoft decides to dominate any particular aspect of computing. That doesn’t stop people from trying, Microsoft history is littered with companies that thought they had the upper hand or at least a fighting chance and tried standing their ground in the face of Microsoft competition. The mistake these companies make is analogous to the error an armadillo makes on a Texas highway. The armadillo has a tough hide that is able to fend off most predators so when faced with a Peterbilt Semi hugging the centerline in the late afternoon the armadillo curls into a protective ball. The results are a pronounced flattening of the distinctive armadillo shape. The last thought of the armadillo is probably along the lines of “Odd, this has always worked before.” For example the Netscape executives saw Microsoft release a browser and likely thought that with their market share they would be able to withstand the coming onslaught. History should have told them that they were, forgive the pun, flat out wrong. So most right minded folks will think that if Microsoft ever turns it’s Redmond eye towards Apple then Apple is well and truly done.
However contrarians will say might does not necessarily win every battle. Astute thinkers will note that as a corporation grows in size innovation often suffers. There is no better illustration of this fact than the chemical industry. Huge companies are currently having a very difficult time discovering useful compounds. Some large corporations have essentially given up on research and instead focus on buying compounds from smaller, more flexible firms. It appears that when a corporation reaches truly behemoth like proportions the levels of management start interfering with innovation.
That is why the Firefox/IE 7 battle will be of supreme interest. If Microsoft is able to play the blue whale to the plankton that is Firefox then it might be wise to hope that Apple’s market share sticks somewhere under the threshold where Microsoft would take notice. On the other hand if IE 7 rolls out and still lacks enough features to thoroughly and completely remove Firefox from the Windows landscape then it might be a sign that Microsoft has lost it’s edge. It will be an interesting time to watch the browser share numbers.